First Sentence

John Holloway has a thing in the latest HM Journal on the first sentence, but I had not seen it before writing these notes. See a link to his – or at least another verion of it, I dunno if exactly the same – via here. Meanwhile, these notes are the 2011 update of a text published in 2008 in Tom Bunyard’s “Devil’s Party“:

The first sentence

Starting with the difficult scene of commodity exchange, this is nonetheless a very clear and accessible read. Marx’s presentation differs from the mode of inquiry. The commentary on commodities was not his first object of analysis, it is an abstracted presentation, a writerly, rewritten, text.

Marx’s introduction anticipates a great many themes that will recur over and over in the text. Readers are forewarned, the wealth of nations is at stake, there be monsters, in this drama, where production rules, and its very elements, and their abstract form, will be examined.

Look at the first sentence of the text (in English, Penguin translation):

‘The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an “immense collection of commodities”, the individual commodity appears as its elementary form’ (Marx 1867/1976)

I think it is crucial that the commodity is the opening scene of a drama that has a wider purpose for demystifying. It is the opening to a work that will provide the ‘implied reader’ of Capital (I follow Gayatri Spivak’s ‘Scattered Speculations’ essay of 1985 in seeing this reader as first of all a member of the German socialist workers party here, and by extension today, you and I) with the x-ray vision to see through the trick of market exchange, control of production, distribution, valourisation, credit, the varieties of subsumption and the crises of capital, so as to sublate the productive power of capital away from the exploitative production for profit of commodity wealth into a more plentiful abundance of life and creativity for all…

Marx wrote his analysis of capital not only because he wanted to set down the answers, but so that the working class would have the wherewithal to make their own analyses, to read the world. We can have issues with this metaphor, which privileges text as unproblematic transcription, but Marx himself would not have difficulty here.

Who to write for as important as what to say.

So what to say? I would argue that the first sentence is of utmost important because the whole of Capital, in its presentation, is a staged drama. Throughout the literary theatrical code is prominent. Characters when they appear (as personifications, as ‘Moneybags’) perform in Marx’s theatre, even at the very beginning – the ‘immense collection of commodities’ is characterised as something like the World Fair, those mad exhibitions of the produce of the world, before which – in 1851 for example – Marx had marvelled as a visitor at the plunder of the world. The society to be examined is one where the capitalist mode of production prevails – prevails as a kind of monstrous law or power over all (prevails is translated as herrscht , which might be better rendered as rule, govern or controls). And though we are starting with the commodity, the analysis will look to the provenance of all these things, and how production determines exchange, and what follows (see my dispute with Clifford in Hutnyk 2004 chapter 1)

The very first four words of Marx’s Capital are ‘The Wealth of Societies’, surely echoing, as Spivak notes, Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. ‘In the rational plan for socialism’, however, ‘there is no room for nationalism’ (Spivak 2008:100). Against Smith, Marx writes a book that is aimed at overcoming the exploitation and appropriation of wealth that prevails in the capitalist mode of production as a social (class) formation. He writes in order to expose the trick of capital, its deceit and deception.

The wealth of societies is a phrase that should be the first to stop us. Recall that society is not community, think of Tonnies, soon to be writing on this distinction, recall Thatcher, recall Cameron’s big one – the proposal that the support work of social reproduction be further socialized, via all manner of voluntarism, non-remunerated labour, free for all disregard of the hard won concessions that a strong labour movement had wrested fro capital – we will spend considerable time on struggles over the length of the working say, but this is relevant also for family, ethnicity, self-education and a range of other modalities of reproduction, including affective labour in sexual service, family reproduction, marriage and – lets call it compensation dating.

Now, I am not saying we should address each word of Capital with a view to thinking how it is relevant to our circumstances today, to the current conjuncture, etc., though that is pretty much the essay question, but i do think its worth keeping in mind that we read with a contexted eye. This year, of all years, threatens to be interesting and I would like to think reading capital again can help us think differently than we presently do – the only reason to go on thinking at all.

What clinches this argument? The very wording of the opening sentence includes two visual references. In the Penguin edition the German word erscheint is translated as ‘appearance’. The German reads:

Der Reichtum der Gesellschaften, in welchen kapitalistische Produktionsweise herrscht, erscheint als eine “ungeheure Warensammlung”, die einzelne Ware als seine Elementarform.’

The term erscheint occurs just the once here, rendered as two instances of the word ‘appears’ in the English (as cited earlier). This is grammatically acceptable; translation is no pure calculus, but I think there is an important significance that is lost. In the Lawrence and Wishart edition the translation is better: ‘The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities”; its unit being a single commodity’ (Marx 1867/1967:35 my italic). Both editions then go on to say that our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of the commodity. Noting that accumulation is perhaps a better translation that collection, my point is that revealed in the gap between the two English translations of erscheint is the entire burden of Marx’s project – to expose the trick of the commodity as social form so as to teach the working class to see into the mechanics of industrial capital. Erscheinung, in German usage, has a double, or even triple sense. It connotes ‘appearance’ both in terms of how something looks, and in the theatrical sense of putting in an appearance, of staging something; in addition, it also has the sense of an apparition (which is what Derrida makes so much of in Spectres of Marx, although not actually from this sentence; it seems he prefers the Manifesto perhaps because it’s a shorter read [‘A spectre is haunting Europe’]). The ‘presents itself’ of the International edition gets closer to the theatrical sense, but does not capture the doubling nor the monstrous spectre, the trick that is perpetrated by the animated commodity – animated by the masses themselves, though they do not see it as such, yet.

Another point to be made here is that Marx, in that first sentence, quotes himself. Others have pointed to this curiosity (see Pepperell 2009), but Marx had already quipped in a preface that he was ‘coquetting’ with the presentation style of Hegel in setting out his rendering of Capital. This flirtation, that we do not need to take at its somewhat flippant word, is itself a machine for seduction, for storytelling, repetition, and a gamble that starts with a kind of doubled disguise (self quotation from the start) as a tactic. The wealth of societies is Smith, but not Smith, ‘ersheint’ is Hegel, but not Hegel, the commodity is the elementary form, but social, the monster accumulates.

I will also take up, in this first sentence that has detained us already for a long time, and further holds the rest of the text in abeyance, another translation slippage that I think is significant. Within the self quoted quote, the English renders the accumulation of commodities as ‘immense’. Ungeheure can certainly mean immense, or enourmous, but it also evokes a more Gothic meaning, that certainly fits the context – ungeheuerlich is ‘monstrous’, Ungeheuerlichkeit is ‘atrocity’. Perhaps it would be good, even in this first sentence, not to write out the evocations of Marx’s language – the theatrical and the gothic – a book populated by monsters is not merely comic, it is deadly serious, engaged in combat against demons and death.

Ungeheuer is immense but also monstrous. The demonic inflection is intended in Marx’s language. What today is the most monstrous appearance of capital? No longer a commodity economy but an economy economy, an immense collection of abstract shares, interest margins, affective attachement to interest rates and other markers of well-being, all of course based upon property and privilege still, but somewhat more clearly only the appearance of wealth is mediated through salary and bonus and all that can afford. Good schools, white entitlement, supremacy and privilege have never been less obvious as the marks of accumulated wealth of society types.

Appearance is theatrical, yet also a machine of domination. The point is to see though this trick, to see through the plastic appearances. We are not only talking of how things are, but also of how they are made to seem, and how we put up with them, even smiling as we do so. This needs a storyteller’s skill; so that rhetoric, metaphor, trope, coquetting; nothing escapes its role in the system. It might not even be impossible to imagine Marx as the system thinking itself in some contradictory, reflexive and critical manner (self quotation, doubling, haunting itself), but this is of course a fantastical deceit. Marx delivered a book that was itself a machine for narrative action (and still is, it gets inside your head and rewires thought, the tables dance). Now, the book could be read every time and for everyone as a potentially endlessly reorganized and renewed epic (it is hoped), still true to the project of teaching the implied reader to conjure with theory so as to unpack the real – to unpack the wealth of societies in which the capitalism mode of production prevails. Sure, it is a gamble to set out the analysis in a rhetorical style – inevitably part of the culture industry, the book itself still today engages with this gamble: Capital as a radical text sells more in times of crisis than not, and is sold as a commodity in bookshops for gain. It has its own commodity fetish format, precariously inserted into the DNA of the system of co-option and recuperation, even in the radical must-needs product. But the plastic will not remain forever – the reading of Capital is not merely system noise. We want people to read more than the first sentence, but also we want to read with care – and with a view to changing everything because, well – this is too quick, but we know the co-constitution of industry and exploitation cannot be merely described. The point is to change it. Books are also tools, plastic wealth is a trick, the screams of pain are real.

Note: Hans Ehrbar has prepared a resource that presents large sections of the English (Penguin, but often amended) and German (4th Edition) text of Capital in parallel, with significant explication. (Ehrbar 2009

Ehrbar notes that this ‘new’ translation and interpretation of Marx ‘is deeply indebted to Critical Realism, a philosophical current founded by Roy Bhaskar’. He also says, unfortunately, that ‘I did not try to reproduce all ambiguities of the German text. If the German can be understood in two different ways, and interpretation a is, in my view, clearly right while interpretation b is wrong, then my translation will only try to bring out interpretation a’ (Ehrbar 2009

My reading of the first sentence, prepared before I found Ehrbar, follows Spivak and attends to what might be called ambiguities, but which I think may be better rendered as dialectical style. The reading of the rest of the book will confirm or deny this assertion.

Marx himself rewriting the first sentence is here (which in turn links to this post, so a circuit metaphor is lurking there somehow… mis-en-about…)

Border theory

BorederGermany‘At a certain stage of development,

the material productive forces of society

come into conflict with the existing relations of production

or – this merely expresses the same thing

in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework

of which they have operated hitherto.

From forms of development of the productive forces

these relations turn into their fetters.

Then begins an era of social revolution.

The changes in the economic foundation lead

sooner or later

to the transformation of the




Marx in Marseilles

Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 10.18.27MARX TO ENGELS

Marseilles, 17 February 1882

Hôtel au petit Louvre,

Rue de Cannebière

… A fine day for the journey to Marseilles, and all right until just beyond the station at Lyons. First, l’/s hours d’arrêt at Cassis on account of the locomotive’s distemper; then again the same mishap with the engine at Valence, although this time the arrêt wasn’t so long. Meanwhile it had turned bitter cold with a nasty biting wind. Instead of arriving some time before midnight, we did not reach [Marseilles] until after 2 o’clock in the morning; to some extent I was more or less freezing, despite all my wrappings, the only antidote I found being ‘alcohol’ and I again and again resorted to it. During the last quarter of an hour (if not more) in the exposed, cold and windswept gare de Marseille, there was one last épreuve in the shape of prolonged formalities before obtaining possession of one’s luggage.

Today it’s sunny in Marseilles, but the wind itself not yet warm. Dr Dourlen advised me to stay at the above-named hotel, whence I shall leave for Algiers tomorrow (Saturday) at 5 in the afternoon. The office of the Paquebots à vapeur des Postes françaises’ is located here, in the very hotel at which I am staying, so that I was able to take a ticket (at 80 first class) for the paquebot Said straight away; one’s baggage is likewise enregistered here, so that everything is as convenient as can be.

Collected Works vol 46 page 119.

Marx in Algeria 1882

Engels writing to Bernstein 22 February 1882:

Marx arrived in Algiers on Monday morning, a place I and the doctors had always wanted him to go to, though he himself wasn’t very keen. He has met a judge in the tribunal civil there, a former deportee of Bonaparte’s, who has made a close study of communal ownership among the Arabs and has offered to enlighten him on the subject.

Kindest regards both to yourself and Kautsky.

F. E.

and then this fantastic letter from marx to Laura:

Marx-Engels Correspondence 1882

Marx To Laura Lafargue
In London

[Algiers,] Thursday, 13 April 1882

Source: MECW Volume 46, pp. 238-243;
First published: in Marx and Engels, Works, Second Russian Edition, Vol. 35, Moscow, 1964;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

Darling Cacadou,

I reproach myself for not having written to you again until now, not that there’s anything special to report from here. How often do I not think of you – at Eastbourne, beside my Jenny’s sick-bed, and during your faithful daily visits so cheering to that crosspatch, Old Nick. But you should know, dear child, that this week and last were Fermé’s Easter vacation; he lives in the rue Michelet (as part of the route Mustapha supérieur is called) at the foot of the hill from which the Hotel Victoria looks down. It’s only a stone’s throw away for him, although he has to ‘clamber’ since there’s no proper path leading up to it. And in fact he has latterly been visiting me assiduously, thus frustrating the best of resolutions in regard to afternoon letter-writing. – Otherwise not an unwelcome guest, Mr. Fermé, nor devoid of humour. After I had given him some Citoyens and Égalitésto read, he arrived chuckling not a little over Guesde’s ‘terrorism of the future’ [which is to go on] until – this anticipated in heavy type – the last bourgeois oppressor has been guillotined out of existence. Fermé is not fond of Algiers whose climate doesn’t suit either him or his family (often visited by fever, etc.) although its members are all of them ‘des indigenès’ à commencer par Madame l’épouse. Above all, however, his salary as a judge is hardly sufficient for even the most modest way of life. Living in a colonial capital is always expensive. But one thing he does admit – in no town elsewhere, which is at the same time the seat of the central government, is there such laisser faire, laisser passer; police reduced to a bare minimum; unprecedented public sans gêne; the Moorish element is responsible for this. For Mussulmans there is no such thing as subordination; they are neither ‘subjects’ nor ‘administrés’; no authority, save in politica, something which Europeans have totally failed to understand. Few police in Algiers, and such as there are for the most part indigenès. And yet, with such a medley of national elements and unscrupulous characters, frequent clashes are inevitable, and it is here that the Catalonians live up to their old reputation; the white or red belts they wear, like the Moors, etc., outside their coats and not, like the French, beneath their clothing, often conceal ‘bodkins’ – long stilettos which these sons of Catalonia are not slow to ‘employ’ with equal impartiality against Italians, Frenchmen, etc., and natives alike. Incidentally, a few days ago a gang of forgers was apprehended in the province of Oran, amongst them their chief, a former Spanish officer; their European agency, it now transpires, is in the capital of Catalonia – Barcelona! Some of the laddies were not arrested and escaped to Spain. This piece of news, and others of a similar kind, derives from Fermé. The latter has received 2 advantageous offers from the French government; firstly, a transfer to New Caledonia where he would, at the same time, be responsible for introducing a new legal system, salary 10,000 frs (he and family to travel there gratis and, on arrival, be given free official accommodation); or, secondly, to Tunis, where he would likewise occupy a higher magisterial rank than here, and under far more favourable conditions. He has been given a certain period in which to make up his mind; will accept one or the other.

From Mr Fermé to the weather is a natural transition, since he freely heaps imprecations on the same. – Since Easter Monday (incl.) I have not missed a single morning stroll, although only yesterday (12th) and today have been spared the caprices of April. Yesterday, bien que nous subissions le léger siroco et, par conséquent, quelques coups de vent, ce fut le maximum du beau temps: à 9 heures le matin (le 12) le temperature à l’ombre fut de 19.5°, et celle au soleil, de 35°. In spite of having gone for a walk in the morning (12 April), I visited Algiers in the afternoon in order to take a look at the Russian ironclad, Peter the Great, which had arrived in the harbour there a few days before.

The official meteorological office has forecast intense atmospheric disturbances for 15-16 April (when there’ll be orage), 19, 21, 25, 27, 29 and 30 April; nevertheless, the weather during the remainder of April will on the whole be fine at the same time it is feared that in May, to make up for the absence of a true Algerian spring (which did not begin till yesterday), summer will arrive all at once and with it unbearable heat. However that may be, I do not, as corpus vile feel inclined to serve as an experimental station for the weather. In view of the altogether abnormal character of the past 4½ months, God knows what Algeria may have in store. Large numbers of shrewd folk (amongst them l’illustre ‘Ranc’) departed from the African shore day before yesterday. I shall only stay until Dr Stephann has declared my left side to be in good order again, apart, of course, from the scar well known to the doctissimi Drs Donkin and Hume, left by an earlier attack of pleurisy. What has been tiresome here so far is the constant recurrence of my cough, even if within moderate limits; withal, much boredom.

Interruption of the most agreeable kind: knocks at the door; Entrez! Madame Rosalie (one of the serving spirits) brings me a letter from you, dear Cacadou, and, from the good Gasçon, a long letter of which the paper, like the envelope, already bears the official stamp: ‘L’Union Nationale’. This time he seems to have pulled it off! Ce n’est pas une de ces entreprises patronées par Mr Ch. Hirsch! On the other hand, to be sure, the prospect of my Cacadou’s departure looms closer! But not just yet, I trust. Also, I regard it as some compensation that Aunty Cacadou should represent so great a gain to Jennychen and her children; anyway, with Paris so close, there’s no need to spend the whole year in London. – Apropos. Has Lafargue sent the next instalment of the article to Petersburg? (I don’t know what became of the first consignment.) It’s most important not to lose the vantage point of Petersburg; it will gain in importance daily! Also for anyone who sends despatches there.

Second interruption: It is 1 o’clock p.m., and I have promised to visit the ‘Jardin du Hamma’ ou ‘Jardin d’Essai’ with Madame Casthelaz, son fils, and one of our other fellow pensionnaires, Madame Claude (of Neufchâtel). We have to be back before dinner (6 o’clock p.m.), later than which every effort at writing never as yet dared upon by me. So no more till tomorrow. Simply by way of a supplement * to the useful knowledge of Cacadou I allow myself to remark, that on that very Hamma took place the landing of 24,000 soldiers under the commandment of Charles V, emperor, (or Carlos I, according to the Spaniards) on 23 October 1541, 8 days later he had to ship the * beaux restes de son armée détruite sur les vaisseaux échappes à la tempete du 26, et ralliés a grand peine par Doria, à Matifou. Ce dernier lieu ou finit la baie d’Alger c. à. d.- le cap Matifouopposite, on the East, to Algiers, is to be espied, par des bonnes lunettes, by myself from Hôtel Victorias Gallery.

Vendredi, 14 April

*I commence this letter at the moment when I have a few lines to be added to the foregoing, that is to say at about 1 o’clock p.m. The day ended yesterday as fine as that of the 12th. Both the evenings 12 and 13 (about 8 hours p. m.) were warm – quite exceptional this – but cool (relatively) at the same time, hence really delightful. This morning the warmth a little more ‘heavy’, and just since two hours the wind blows violently, probably the ‘orage’ predicted yesterday from 14-15.

Yesterday at 1 o’clock p. m. we went down to Inferior Mustapha whence the tram brought us to Jardin Hamma or Jardin d’Essai, which is used for ‘Promenade Publique’ with occasional military music, as ‘pépinière’ for the production and diffusion of the indigenous vegetables, at last for the purpose of scientific botanical experiments and as agarden of ‘acclimatation’. – This all encloses a very large ground, part of which is mountainous, the other belonging to the plain. In order to see more minutely, you would want at least a whole day, and beside being somebody with you a connaisseur, f. i. like M. Fermé’s friend and old Fourieriste, M. Durando, professor of botanics, who is the leader of a section of the ‘Club Alpin Français’ on its regular Sunday excursions. (I very much regretted that my bodily circumstances and the Dr. Stephann’s strict prohibition till now did not yet allow me to share in these excursions, having 3 times [been] invited thereto.)

Well, before entering the Jardin d’Essai’ we took coffee, of course in the free air, a Mauresque ‘café’. The Maure prepared it excellently, we were on a bank. On a rough table, in inclined positions, their legs crossed, half a dozen Maure visitors were delighted in their small ‘cafetières,’ (everyone gets one of his own) and together playing at cards (a conquest this on them of civilisation). Most striking this spectacle: Some of these Maures were dressed pretentiously, even richly, others in, for once I dare call it blouses,sometime of white woollen appearance, now in rags and tatters – but in the eyes of a true Musulman such accidents, good or bad luck, do not distinguish Mahomet’s children.Absolute equality in their social intercourse, not affected; on the contrary, only when demoralized, they become aware of it; as to the hatred against Christians and the hope of an ultimate victory over these infidels, their politicians justly consider this same feeling and practice of absolute equality (not of wealth or position but of personality) a guarantee of keeping up the one, of not giving up the latter.* (Nevertheless, they will go to rack and ruin without a revolutionary movement.)

*In regard to the plain part of the Jardin d’Essai I remark only: It is cut by three great longitudinal ‘allées’ of a wonderful beauty; opposite to the principal entry is the ‘alléeof the platenes [platanes] ; then the ‘allée des palmiers’, ended by an oasis of immense 72 ‘palmiers’, limited by the railway and the sea; at last the ‘allée’ of the magnolia and a sort of figues (ficus roxburghi). These three great ‘allées’ are themselves cut by many others crossing them, such as the long ‘allée des bambous’ astonishing, the ‘alléeof ‘palmiers à chanvre’, the ‘dragon[n]iers’, the ‘eucalyptus’ (blue gum of Tasmania), etc., (the latter are of an extraordinarily quick vegetation).

Of course, these sorts of* allées cannot be reproduced in European ‘Jardins d’acclimatation’.

During the afternoon there was a concert of military music in a large open space encircled by plane trees; the conductor, a noncommissioned officer, wore ordinary French uniform, whereas the musicians (common soldiers) wore red, baggy trousers (of oriental cut), white felt boots buttoning up to the bottom of the baggy trousers; on their heads a red fez.

While on the subject of the garden, I did not mention (though some of these were very pleasing to the nose) orange trees, lemon – ditto, almond trees, olive trees, etc.; nor, for that matter, cactuses and aloes which also grow wild (as do wild olives and almonds) in the rough country where we have our abode.

Much though this garden delighted me, I must observe that what is abominable about this and similar excursions is the ubiquitous chalky dust; though I felt well in the afternoon and after coming home and during the night, my cough was nonetheless rather troublesome, thanks to the irritation caused by the dust.

I am expecting Dr Stephann today, but as I cannot put off the despatch of this missive, I will send a report to Fred, later on.

Finally, as Mayer of Swabia used to say, let us take a little look at things from a higher historical perspective. Our nomadic Arabs (who have, in many respects, gone very much to seed while retaining, as a result of their struggle for existence, a number of sterling qualities) have memories of having once produced great philosophers, scholars, etc., which, they think, is why Europeans now despise them for their present ignorance. Hence the following little fable, typical of Arab folklore.

A ferryman is ready and waiting, with his small boat, on the tempestuous waters of a river. A philosopher, wishing to get to the other side, climbs aboard. There ensues the following dialogue:

Philosopher: Do you know anything of history, ferryman?
Ferryman: No!
Philosopher: Then you’ve wasted half your life!
And again: The Philosopher: Have you studied mathematics?
Ferryman: No!
Philosopher: Then you’ve wasted more than half your life.

Hardly were these words out of the philosopher’s mouth when the wind capsized the boat, precipitating both ferryman and philosopher into the water. Whereupon,

Ferryman shouts: Can you swim?
Philosopher: No!
Ferryman: Then you’ve wasted your whole life.

That will tickle your appetite for things Arabic.

With much love and many kisses.

Old Nick
(best compliments to all)